Marcos Perez was working three jobs at the time, filling the days with carpentry, the nights with restaurant service gigs, including at the place where Elizabeth's sister worked, and the weekends with what Elizabeth calls "oddball construction" work. He kept an active life, one in tune with the outdoors, and in his sense of industry Elizabeth saw a kindred spirit. Besides, he was so kind. She fell hard.
It didn't occur to her then to inquire about Marcos' legal status, and it wouldn't have. For one, it's not like people typically run citizenship checks on their dates. And secondly the mood in California, Elizabeth says with a tinge of reflection, is a bit different — it's not something you ask about.
Elizabeth and Marcos began building their relationship, and life continued to change around them. Soon they were planning the birth of their first son.
The conversation about Marcos' status occurred in fragments over time. It wasn't even really clear to either of them what impact, if any, it had on their budding family.
"To me, it was like, 'Oh, well you're here...,'" Elizabeth says. "It didn't matter at that point. And it wouldn't have mattered much in the beginning anyway, because I really liked him from the first day I met him."
Marcos' legal status rested comfortably on the back burner but the couple planned for the necessary and eventual process, saving up money to get Marcos naturalized. Other legal designations also didn't matter much to them. They considered themselves "mentally and spiritually married," Elizabeth says, but, "it wasn't something that we felt was super important at the time." They didn't really know how to go through the marital process with Marcos' lack of documents but they were together and that's all that mattered.
The couple moved to Cleveland, where Elizabeth's family roots ran deep and where Cleveland State University held the promise of a bright future. It took Marcos a long time to find a job, though he did sling burritos at Chipotle for a time — "How stereotypical," Elizabeth says with a chuckle — and now and then picked up more of those oddball construction gigs. He was on his way to becoming a supervisor at a janitorial company, a promotion that would come in especially handy with two children to support and a partner heading to college.
"I wasn't doing anything bad. You know, as a human, you feel inside your heart when you're working in the wrong way," Marcos says via phone from Mexico City. "I felt really good. I had my family and my two jobs. I was going to go to school."
And then Marcos Perez got pulled over on his way to work.***
Elizabeth Perez positively beams when she smiles, and she smiles often. Framed by her two energetic sons, Ignacio and Marcos (now 4 and 3), she is an ebullient presence in her living room. And she smiles as she tries to tie Ignacio's curly, flowing hair into a ponytail, the prospect of which upsets Ignacio greatly. That smile quickly fades away when she talks about Marcos' departure.
The white van pulled out of the Mayfield Heights' police station parking lot and Elizabeth, in a quite visceral reaction, spat on the floor. Marcos was transported to Bedford municipal jail, then ICE's Seneca County Jail before being tossed on a flight to deep Texas, where he'd be ferried to the far side of the Mexican border with no inkling of what to do next. He was still wearing his work clothes from weeks' prior when he'd been pulled over. He had $17 in cash. With no ID, there was no immediate way to get money wired from Elizabeth back home.
Marcos eventually gained the trust of a stranger in that forgotten border town, garnering enough rapport to have Elizabeth send money through the middleman. He made his way to Mexico City, the sprawling political center of a country with which Marcos bore only a passing familiarity. Mexico City, for Marcos, is home to a tangled family history that involves his mother giving him away as a child so many years ago and a father he's still never met (a lifelong absence that he says now reminds him of his own sons). It's not his home. But with nowhere else to go, Marcos reestablished himself in the city of nearly 9 million. After a brutal first year with few prospects, he took up work as a soccer referee.
Following the birth of their second child in 2011, Elizabeth moved the family to Mexico City. Anything, she thought, to keep them all together. Elizabeth and Marcos became legally married. The long-awaited signatures made everything official and with that, the formal visa application process to return to their lives could begin. They were advised it would be about a two-year wait before everything was approved. Two years was manageable. Two years wasn't that long. The couple poured thousands of dollars into lawyers to help navigate the paperwork.
But simply being together in the meantime wasn't enough, not when all their money was funneled to lawyers, leaving little left for daily life, and not when Elizabeth battled hunger — real, indescribable hunger — for the first time in her life as a result. She couldn't keep her kids in that environment for long.
And there was the matter of her thyroid, part of which had been removed years before. She needed regular check-ups at the VA hospital and, being a veteran, she thought she and her family deserved to be close to the American systems that had motivated her to devote ten years of her life to serving her country. Her roots were in the United States, after all, and Marcos' future was on American soil. Two years.
Elizabeth returned to Cleveland and began working on her bachelor's degree in social work at Cleveland State with additional studies in Spanish. She and the kids would spend summers in Mexico City where the family would enjoy brief stretches of normalcy, but once they returned to Northeast Ohio, the stresses of thousands of miles of distance would begin to show. Ignacio experienced frequent night terrors, and though Skype and long-distance calls helped bridge the gap, his anguish was rarely quelled completely.
Two years, she'd remind them. Daddy would be home soon.
But in the run-up to the November 2012 application interview, Elizabeth stumbled upon a horror tucked in the legal language of her husband's application. Because he had been deported from the country, he was ineligible for this particular visa pipeline. The couple, as it happened, had sunk thousands of dollars into inept legal representation and several years of their lives into a path with a dead-end.
Marcos went to the interview anyway, because sometimes crazy things happen and because you reach for whatever glimmer of hope you can. It didn't matter. His application was rejected. He would remain ineligible for a visa until 2020.
"We got the money back," Elizabeth says, referencing the lawyer who led the family astray and the military retirement she was forced to cash out decades too early to pay for the privilege. "But I would have rather gotten the time back. I was having a really hard time mentally. I went into a state that was not good. I had all my hopes in life riding on that; that was the only thing that kept me moving forward. And when that fell through, I just fell into this deep, dark place."***
It's not unusual for families to be roped along by lawyers who don't understand immigration law. The issue is sprawling and complex and can hardly serve case-by-case guidelines on the estimated 22 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., according to 2012 Census data. In Cleveland, the estimates hover around 9,000.
There are two general routes to naturalization for undocumented workers: Those already living in the U.S. can return to their home country and initiate a waiting period of up to 10 years. Only then can they apply for a legal return. Non-residents who have never set foot in the U.S. apply for citizenship with sponsorship from a parent, sibling, or even an employer. That process can take between 2 and 30 years.
Waiting periods are measured not only in years but in lifetimes. And the deeper into the labyrinth of immigration law one delves, the more obstacles and qualifications arise. A U.S. citizen, for example, hoping to bring his or her unmarried children into the country faces an average wait time of seven years. For children coming from Mexico in particular, the wait is closer to 21 years.